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The Summer Triangle and Telescope Proposals

The Kepler field is located in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra. You can find the Kepler field by looking for the Summer Triangle, the corners which are composed of the brightest stars in the constellations Aquila, Cygnus, and Lyra:  Altair, Deneb, and Vega.  Along the Deneb and Vega side, you’ll find the stars that make up the Kepler targets. As its name implies, the Summer Triangle and the Kepler field are high in the Northern skies during the Summer months.

As August ends and we enter September, the Kepler field is slowly getting lower in the sky each night. By the end of the month it will be difficult to observe from telescopes in the Northern Hemisphere like the Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii and the WIYN telescope on Kitt Peak in Arizona. Astronomers studying the stars and confirming the planet candidates in the Kepler field will have to wait until next year to observe starting about May when the Kepler field will rise again above the horizon for a large fraction of the night.

Even though we won’t be able to observe the Kepler field for several months, if we want to use the Keck telescopes to study Planet Hunters candidates next year we have to decide now what we’re going to do, what telescopes we need, and how many nights because of how observing time on these telescopes is decided.

Observing time on telescope is limited and highly coveted. Astronomers compete to get time of these telescopes to observe, and there are more good observing projects than are nights to give on telescopes like Keck, Gemini, and the VLT (Very Large Telescope). For Keck and those telescopes on Kitt Peak, the time on these precious resources is divided between the institutions that built and maintain these telescopes. In addition a small portion of nights goes to NASA and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, and the observing time from these two institutions is up for grabs and open to all astronomers at US institutions.

So how does proposing and getting observing time exactly work? Usually twice a year, there is a call for proposals, asking astronomers to propose for time that they want and justify what they need it for. Then the TAC (Time Allocation Committee) meets, ranking each proposal. The top ranked proposals will get the time they ask for on the telescopes. Many times there will be good proposals that won’t get any time because the telescopes are oversubscribed, more people apply than time is available. At most you’ll be able to get a few nights on these telescopes if you are lucky.

The nights on the telescopes from February 2013 through July 2013 are allocated this Fall. A place like Yale, we have access to the WIYN 3.5-m telescope at Kitt Peak, the SMARTS telescopes in Chile. We also have ~10 nights a semester on the Keck telescopes in Hawaii allotted to Yale observers. So this week and next week, I’ll be writing a telescope proposal where I need to justify what I want to do and why it is important.  I’ll need to determine what instrument I need and how it needs to be set up. I’ll have decide how many nights are required to get the observations and come up with a list of targets to observe. If all goes well and with a bit of luck  I get the time, when the Summer Triangle is high in the sky again next year, I’ll fly to the Big Island of Hawaii and take those observations I’m planning now.

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